Science Fiction and Fantasy Saturday

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Hello!  Today is my first outing on Science Fiction and Fantasy Saturday. I’ve been wishing for an outlet to share my sf&f fiction projects and thinking about starting a hop myself, so I was very happy to see someone else already did all the hard work. Thanks for letting me play!

Today I’m sharing the opening from my one published novel, a contemporary fantasy called Death is a Star.  Hope you enjoy, and don’t forget to visit the other participants at SciFiFanSat.blogspot.com etc.

***

Death had rendered him flawless. Stretched out on the picnic table where he’d met his final reward, Hugo’s hunch dissolved, his legs straightened, and his fierce scowl relaxed into an expression of bliss. All signs of his deformity vanished along with his soul. Theda swept wisps of fine blond hair from his forehead and curled them behind his ear. He was beautiful now. It pissed her off.
Hugo had been stuck between worlds. Nothing about his twisted body proved glamorous enough to enter him into the ranks of full-fledged freaks, and yet he was too ugly and
misshapen for a normal life. He worked for the circus, toting heavy things and carting away animal debris. Longing at one moment for webbed fingers or the ability to swallow fire, and the next, for a smooth spine and strong jaw. He’d achieved none of those things while alive.
Theda hoped the gods were happy. She hoped Hugo was happy, and that he’d taken his newfound perfection with him into the nether world. The blood seeping through his white dress shirt marred the effect. She took a deep breath and raised her eyes to her sister.

***

Available where all fine eBooks are sold!

Available where all fine eBooks are sold!

Buy Link to Amazon.com

Blurb:

A contemporary fantasy featuring time travelling Assyrian sisters, a circus in hiding, a body-snatching Demon seeking self-actualization, and heroic elephants.

Theda wants only to get home to Nineveh, but her sister Irene believes controlling the demon and exploiting his unlimited power is the way to go. Theda must come to grips with her own role in this black magic mix-up and risk her bond with home, family, her beloved elephants and life itself in order to stop an ancient evil from being unleashed upon an unsuspecting modern world.

 

The Longest Night ~ Flash Fiction

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To celebrate the season and to make up for my long (very, very long) neglect of this  blog, I decided to offer up a little story I wrote a few years back about Christmas in space. It was supposed to be under 1,000 words but I never quite managed it. However, it’s still short and sweet and might help get you in the mood if, like me, you’re feeling a tad grinchy.

Enjoy!

The Longest Night

By

Christina Lay

At midnight, we sat down for breakfast. Despite eternal darkness and round the clock shifts, I couldn’t get used to it.  Think of it as second noon, I told myself, to no avail.  I was tired and I wanted to sleep, but the night was only beginning.  The sun wouldn’t be up for, oh, let’s see, five months?

I slept, I ate, I worked, I watched videos, I slept.  Without the rise and fall of the sun, my life melded into one seamless pattern of motion, non-motion, do, not do. I didn’t feel alive, much less like celebrating.

“Do you know what day it is?” Marissa asked, oblivious to the irony, and also forgetting she’d asked me this question, albeit with slight modifications, about a dozen times.

“It’s not day, it’s night,” I said, feeling mulish and out of sorts.  She made a raspberry noise with her lips.  Do you have any idea how annoying this is to hear every night for two weeks? I wanted to grab her lips with all of my fingers and squish them into a lip taco.

“Winter Solstice,” she said, beaming.

“The shortest day of the year?  Do you know how much that cheers my heart?”

“It’s the beginning of the new year, Tweedle Dum,” she said, snitching a baco-stick from my plate and popping it in her mouth.  And to think I used to find her attractive.

“Only 250 days until sunrise,” Jarvis said from his end of the table. He was pissed too. I was starting to get an inkling the shrinks had underestimated the long term effects of sunlight deprivation.

Sure we had all the happy lights and bird song and videos of sunny places and sunrise simulators and starry night stickers above our bunks. Sure none of it helped. Not any more. They’d warned me to stop looking at my earth time display. I couldn’t help it.  I was addicted to the mere thought of night and day, the vague idea that somewhere, the sun was rising.

“I made cookies,” Marissa said, and Jarvis and I stared at her like she was insane.  Maybe she was. Isn’t it always the smiling ones who go first?

“What . . ?” I struggled with the question.  I used to say ‘what on earth?” but that had become so far removed from our reality that it felt stupid.  “What did you use to make cookies?” I managed to ask.  Jarvis actually looked up from his plate, concern pulling his eyebrows together.

“You guys act like I said I’d made a hydrogen bomb, for chrissakes,” Marissa snapped, her cheery outlook slipping.  “There’s bread mix. There’s chocolate and sugar substitutes. It’s really not a big deal.”

“How did you cook them?” I asked, intrigued. Her smile came back and she pushed away from the table, stood up, and walked to the other end of the galley.

“I took a piece of metal sheeting–”

“From our roofing supplies,” Jarvis snapped.

“And a couple of the back-up happy lamps, like so.” She pulled the items out of a cabinet.  Jarvis and I shot out of our chairs to investigate.  Proudly, Marissa pulled back light aluminum from a flat roofing sheet.  We stared down at blackened bread mix shaped into lumpy checker-sized clumps.

“That’s swell, Marissa,” Jarvis said, and we exchanged a look laden with fear.  Suddenly, we didn’t feel so lucky to not be out with the rest of the crew, checking on the sensor array.

“I blended water with calcium powder to replicate milk,” she said, oblivious to our horror.

A loud thump on the outside of the dome distracted all of us.  The cookie sheet clattered to the counter.

“What the hell was that?” we three asked simultaneously.

“Check the blipper,” I said, but Jarvis was already there.

“Nothing,” he reported.

Three more bangs.  This time more localized, as if something large hit against the exterior doors over and over.

“It sounds like . . .”

“What?” I snapped at Jarvis, who looked at Marissa, who looked at me.

“Like someone’s knocking,” she said.

“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard you say and that’s saying a lot,” I said.

“I’m just saying-”

“Well, don’t.”  I marched over to the console and double-checked all the readings.  Nothing out of the ordinary on the comp-cam.

We ran through possibilities while the banging continued, or at least Jarvis and I did.  Marissa seemed to have gone off the deep end, merely staring at the doors.  We ignored her and this gave her the opportunity to lose her mind completely.  She’d initiated the opening sequence before we realized.

“What the hell-!” I shouted.

A shape stumbled in, a person shape.

“-are you doing?” I finished more quietly.

“It’s a . . .”

“Man.”

From out of the frozen, poisonous waste that was our home, a human being stumbled in.  Or what looked human, because no oxygen breathing life form could survive outside for more than a minute, and we’d detected no vehicle, no ship, nothing.

It wore a long, burgundy tarp with a synthetic fur trim, a hood over its head, a thin and scraggly beard hanging down its front.  It slumped in and threw a bag on the floor, then fell into a chair.  It pushed back the hood, and still looking every bit like a terran man, it rubbed its face.

“Man, it’s been a long night,” he said, looking at us for the first time.

“So, Jarvis,” I said, turning to my co-worker, “I seem to be hallucinating.  What do you think Marissa put in those cookies?”

“You didn’t even eat any!” she yelled, then went back to staring at my hallucination and chewing her thumbnail.

“Sorry, Mac, I see it too.”

“So where are the freakin’ cookies?” the man asked, squinting at our bright lights.

“What?”

“The cookies.  You think I came all this way to bring your naughty ass a present?”

Marissa nearly fell over getting the sheet of jaw breakers.  She slapped them down in front of him and whispered, “There’s milk too.”

He looked with baleful eyes at her offering. “Christ,” he muttered.

“Hey,” Jarvis stammered, “She worked hard on those.”

“I know.  Why do you think I’m here? My reindeer will all need reshodding after this.”  He glumly lifted a cookie and bit into it.  We all winced at what sounded like teeth cracking. As he chewed, I realized I stood slack-jawed and useless while some sort of alien entity had his way with our cookies, with our station.  It might be mind control.  I couldn’t think.  I watched him finish the entire cookie, then slurp from a tube of milky water.

He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and belched. “Worst cookie I ever ate,” he announced.  “Before I forget,” he leaned over and dug through his bag.  “Here you go sweetheart, knock yourself out.”  He handed Marissa a flat package, wrapped in shiny gold paper. It even had a bow on it, though crushed.  “You’re my last stop. Thank you folks, it’s been real.”  With that he slung his bag over his shoulder and left, through our impenetrable, computer locked and laser sealed doors.

My earth-time watch clicked off a second, and another.

“What just happened?” I asked.

“Open it!” Jarvis exclaimed, excited as a boy.

“No, it’s not safe,” I heard myself mutter.

Marissa pressed the package to her chest.  “I think I’ll save it for morning,” she said.

space-santa

How to Burn Down Love

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I wrote this post a long time ago, but never had the courage to publish it. Today it seems appropriate.

How to Burn Down Love

Keep silent,

carve with your fingernail into the table,

at the end say, So what?

with brute, bitter sadness,

no trace of a wing

of an easy, tender, downpouring lie.

And it’ll burn

and smoke and go completely black.

 

~Jiri Sotola*

 

Every morning before I start writing, or even journaling, I read one poem out of a bilingual anthology of Czech poetry in the hopes that some of that difficult language will seep into my databanks. I tried the listening-to-tapes method, but that’s too damn hard. I write down the fun words, words like dream (vysri), poisonous (jedovatou), are you awake? (Jste vzhuru?). If I ever get back to the Czech Republic I’ll be able to describe the moonlight on the Vtlava, but ordering a cup of coffee or finding the train station remains beyond my grasp.

In a similarly oblique fashion, I am trying to let poetry (other people’s) do the heavy lifting when it comes to writing about my partner’s suicide.

From a writer’s perspective, it has been an interesting journey to see my brain twist and turn, all to avoid the topic. Just writing that phrase, ‘my partner’s suicide’, makes my muse leap up, pack her bags, and hop a plane to Prague. My writing becomes stilted, strident, stoic. Honesty is as hard to come by as ice in hell. Humor? Forget it. Some other, some uninvited bureaucrat steps into my empty, echoing cranium and starts dictating about anger. Murder. The death of memory and the loss of life. It’s as if we two people never existed. Never laughed. Never loved. We were burnt to ashes when Michael pulled the trigger. Bang and 22 years fall into an irredeemable pit. I stare into the abyss. The ultimate writers’ block. I search for poetry. Today I found it. The beginning. Admitting I am powerless over this anger. I take courage in knowing there is at least one dead Czech who gets me.

Tomorrow is Michael’s birthday and once again I must apologize to him for not being able to summon up a gentle word. That’s what suicide does, mainly. Throws acid on the memories. It is brutal, and it is bitter. So I use other people’s poetry as a gateway to the subconscious, a sort of sideways dabbling in the ashes. There is an obsidian shard coursing through my veins, waiting to pierce my heart and either kill me or release the toxins trapped inside, so it is no wonder the cold dictator will not step aside and let the words out. What terrible words they might be.

I never wanted to, but I am learning the language of suicide.

 

*from Up the Devil’s Back, a Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Czech Poetry, translated and Edited by Bronislava Volkova and Clarice Cloutier

 

 

Ulli

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My Higher Power is a trickster sort of god. While I’d much prefer a Mr. Rodgers sort, the kind of deity who is always thoughtful, considerate and sensitive, I’ve accepted the idea that mine is a laughing hyena that follows me around for amusement’s sake, and nips at my ass whenever I take myself too seriously, which is most of the time.

My Higher Power is his guise of Lazlo the dog.

My Higher Power is his guise of Lazlo the dog.

Last fall I was engaged in my very favorite activity, attending a writers’ retreat with a gang of writing buddies I’ve been hanging with for years. This occasion was bittersweet, as our mentor/guru/priestess/teacher Liz Engstrom had just informed us this would be her last time overseeing our mob of unruly storytellers. I’ve been attending Liz’s short story writing weekends for at least fifteen years, twice a year. Always energizing, inspiring, and most importantly for me, confidence building, the challenge to create a short story in 24 hours in the company of other writers has always been a source of great fun, and dare I say it, pride.

And here we were, facing the grand finale. I endeavored to write my best damn story yet.

Blame melancholy, life stresses, distractions of all sorts, but to my growing horror, I discovered after writing 3,000 words that my story sucked, that there was no end in sight, and that I couldn’t pull that mess out of the fire. I twisted with anxiety. How ironic (and embarrassing) would it be if I became the first person ever not to finish a story on this, the last hurrah?

I’ll admit greater things were weighing on my mind, but the focus of my growing despondency was my inability to concentrate and finish that best damn story yet.

Finally, around noon on Saturday (stories due at 7:00 that night) I went for a stroll. Sure, I’d pulled disaster from the ashes before, starting a new story late Saturday morning and ending up with something decent. But decent wasn’t good enough! I wanted to go out with a bang, leaving my fellow writers gasping in awe! (I can hear them snickering now).

I had to face the fact that I simply wasn’t able to focus. I’m infamous for finishing not only one, but two and once even three stories in 24 hours. Oh, the bitterness, the agony of defeat as I imagined my so-called friends laughing at my misery.

During my walk, I thankfully remembered that I have a program of recovery and I applied it to my writing dilemma. Here I was, in the gorgeous Oregon woods beside the McKenzie River, with my favorite people all around me, doing what I love best (even when I hate it), writing. I decided to relax, enjoy the moment, be in the “Now” and savor the day. I returned to the cabin, took a pinprick little idea and splattered it out across my laptop, typing furiously. Set in a fantasy world, I pulled a protagonist from the ether and dubbed him Ulli. At least I had something.

And secretly, I thought it was kind of good.

That night, we gathered to read the stories out loud. I read my little pinprick (although pretty good) story and breathed a sigh of relief. I was not a complete failure. And then… then our wise mentor/guru/priestess/teacher looked at me kindly, smiled her impish smile, and said, “I had a hard time paying attention, because Ulli in Hawaiian means “penis”.

You can of course imagine the laughter. Yes, I admit, it was funny.

As the night went on (and it went on pretty late) Ulli became the go-to joke, the punch line to every amusing comment and entertaining antidote. I smiled brightly, clenching my teeth. And as I sat there, surrounded by friends who’ve all been there, who’ve all suffered for their art, it dawned on me; Ulli was a little gift from my higher power. Remember the hyena trickster god? Well, if there was ever a lesson in not taking oneself so damn seriously, this was it. And I can honestly say I was proud to have provided my friends with such great comic fodder. And no, I haven’t changed the name of my protagonist in that story, because no matter how hard the process gets, no matter how many rejections roll in and how many stories wither on the vine,

I’ll always have Ulli.

The Power of Showing Up

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This is my nephew performing in his school’s production of Our Town.  He’s young, handsome, intelligent, funny and he has his whole life in front of him. Don’t you kind of hate him?

Watch out, Brad Pitt

Watch out, Brad Pitt

No, of course you don’t! I certainly never could because I adore him too much, but as I watched him on the stage and later hobnobbing with his exuberant drama club pals, I did feel a wee bit of envy.  I couldn’t help but wax remorseful about my own by-gone youth, the wasted years and the sad “winding down” of a life misspent.  If only is the refrain that haunts me in these maudlin moments.  If only I’d known.  Known what? That I’d get old and cranky? But I did know, and it didn’t help.  Despite knowing perfectly well that life is finite, for many years I chose to ignore my dream of being a writer and followed the path of least resistance.

Yes, I have a novel published now, but, no, I’m not making a living writing yet. How can I call myself a writer when I still have to schlep off to the day job?  I’m not a writer. I’m a bookkeeper. Ugh.  If only I hadn’t wasted all those years. If only I’d launched straight from the stage of high school into unrestrained, fearless pursuit of the dream. I might be there now instead of resentfully watching the next generation queuing up for their turn on the big slip and slide called life.

Fast forward two weeks; I’m a presenter at a writer’s conference.  Someone asks me “So how do you get to be a presenter?”  I inform her that I’ve taken classes from the president of the board of directors for over fifteen years, so she kind of knows me. The person replies, “Well, I took a class from her fifteen years ago too!”

Notice the slight difference there.  Taking one class over a decade ago is slightly different from “taking classes for fifteen years”.  Call me obsessed, but I’ve chosen to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to learn, communicate, laugh and commiserate with my fellow writers every chance I get.  So not only have I conned a few people into trusting that I can do a presentation worth offering at a conference, but I’ve made a lot of friends in this business while dragging my introverted self out of the house and out to conferences, retreats, workshops, classes, readings, critique groups and so on.

If only I was always smart enough to appreciate that.  At the conference, I spent a blissful three days reveling in the craft of fiction with a group of the best people in the world, other writers who’ve suffered right along beside me, who understand the struggle, who’ve laughed in the right places and supported my work while I supported theirs. There is nothing quite like it.  I began to suspect that I’d achieved a new level of accomplishment, not because I sold some books or survived another public speaking engagement, but because instead of hiding in a corner I was out there, talking, laughing, dancing and enjoying myself with my peers.  In a surreal shift of attitude, I felt a kinship with my nephew standing in the hallway after the production, laughing with his friends and basking in the glow of risks shared and challenges met.  Do those kids skulk around thinking they can’t be happy until they’re called up the red carpet to receive their Oscar? Ah, no.

We’ve all heard that hoary old saying “It’s the journey, not the destination that counts.” After the conference, I had an epiphany and experienced the truth of that saying for the first time.  My reward for suiting up and showing up turns out not to be the golden three-book, six figure contract at the end of a shining path of blood and toil, but friends, here and now.  Friends who love and support me as I love and support them. How did this happen? We barely see each other, maybe once or twice a year, but when we do, we’re putting it all the line. We’re offering up our heart, our art, our soul, and in turn we’ve earned each other’s trust.

Notice how I lovingly caress My Book.  (giving presentation with Lisa Alber, novelist and buddy)

Notice how I lovingly caress My Book. (giving presentation with Lisa Alber, novelist and buddy)

Show up.  Over and over. The dream is the journey. As we say in recovery, make sure your body and your mind are in the same place, and don’t forget to bring your heart along. Show up at the keyboard, and when opportunity knocks, show up for your life. The reward at the bottom of the slide might not be what you expect, but it will be grand.

Weekend Writing Warriors #1

I’m participating in a blog hop hosted by Weekend Writing Warriors.  This is my first hop.  You too can hop, if you like. Just visit the site and sign up.  On Sunday, post eight lines from your work in progress on your blog, then go visit the other hoppers and revel in snippets of fiction!  Fun, eh? And who doesn’t love to share their beloved WIP with the world?

Doomtown ~ 2087

One person’s disaster is another’s golden opportunity. That’s how Angelique decided to look at the destruction of her home town, as well as the death of her lover, the death of most everyone she knew, and the miscalculation that had left her stranded on the side of a blistering hot highway 700 miles short of her goal.

She folded up the map in her hands and glared at the dead Cadillac hissing quietly beside her.  She’d run out of power a few miles east of Amarillo.  700 miles from Doomtown.

Doomtown.  Only a month ago the idea sounded ludicrous.  The city sat in the middle of a huge exclusion zone. Nobody went there on purpose.

To be continued . . .

PS Okay I cheated a little, because of one of my sentences is only one word, so there’s nine sentences from the opening.  Doomtown is a future fantasy with SF flavorings, about 90K words, and is almost finished!  I mean finished finished, too, as in I really hope this is the last major rewrite.

wewriwa

The Horror- Otherwise Known As Speaking In Public.

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I’m here today to tell you that miracles do happen.  The specific miracle of which I speak is that I, poster-child for social ineptitude and esteem-crippling self-consciousness, have been able to speak to rooms crammed with over a hundred people, without throwing up.

This miracle did not happen over night.  My ability to survive the horror is due to a lot of mental tricks I’ve learned over the years that convince my body I am not about to die. For you see, I’ve been cursed with a physiological response that is out of my control.  My body appears to equate speaking in public with being stripped naked, slathered with barbeque sauce and tossed into a cave of ravenous wolves.

Typical audience member waiting to feast upon my bones

Typical audience member waiting to feast upon my bones

For most of my life, when faced with reading something I’d written out loud to more than one person, my heart would start to pound, I mean, really pound, like I was about to have a heart attack.  Then the dreaded quavering of the voice kicked in, because I’d forget to breathe.  Then, if any speaking off the text was involved, my brain froze and I couldn’t remember the title of my book if my life depended on it.  So this is the challenge I’ve faced.  Common sense would dictate that I Just Don’t Do It. Simple, right?

Not when you’re in a business where getting up and reading in front of a crowd is part of Marketing 101, where you’ve got to talk to agents and editors face to face like a grown up, where being on panels and leading workshops is a key way to promote your work and sometimes even make a living. I’m not in that category yet, but I could be, and so from that horrid day when I first met with New York editors at a conference to this year as I prepare to tell my recovery story to a room full of strangers, yet again, I’ve knuckled down and faced my fear.  So I thought I’d pass along the things that have helped me do this.

The first trick seems to be the key to just about everything. Check out any new age self help blog and you’ll see this simple advice: Breathe.  It’s so ridiculously simple and yet we do forget, don’t we? Try to remember, if you suffocate and die, your larger goals will forever elude you.

The next trick is harder, and that is to Get Over Myself.  I’m the center of no one’s universe but my own.  While my stumbling over words on the podium might live forever in my memory in hideously florid detail, the audience will forget it in two seconds, if they happened to notice in the first place.  This trick can be summed up as Don’t Take Yourself So Damn Seriously.  People don’t expect perfection, and can relate to you better if you’re not perfect. Flubs and stumbles are to be expected and most folks will root for you if you seem nervous. Extroverts think it’s cute. So, if you can’t channel your inner Ricardo Montablan and be all smooth and sophisticated, go for the pity angle.  The last time I talked in front of a large group, I actually told them about my brain freeze issue when I started so they wouldn’t panic if it happened.  It did.  A few moments of silence is okay. Really. It’s okay to think, and if you can manage to appear thoughtful and not terror-stricken during those moments, all the better.

The third trick might not work for everyone. It requires belief in a higher power. This need not be a god, but maybe a totem, a spiritual guide, The Force, Tao, The Beneficent Flow of the Universe, or whatever. Basically you’ve got this all-powerful best buddy who’s looking out for you, right? So, when preparing to speak or meet with Important Peoples, hand over the entire experience to your higher power of choice.  Call upon this sympathetic being and invite them to take the opportunity to channel their wisdom through you.  This is called Passing The Buck, because whatever disaster strikes up there, you can now blame it entirely on your higher power, who is big and benevolent and can handle it much better than you can.

Okay, so it’s all mind games. Mind games and breathing.  Here’s a checklist if you find yourself agonizing or panicking or packing your bags for Patagonia.

* Breathe

* Focus on how happy you’ll be when it’s over

* Believe that people are rooting for you

* Know that you will be happier and stronger for having faced your fear and that it does get easier.

*  Understand that you will not die up there (unless a meteor crashes through the roof and kills you, which you might actually be wishing for, but let’s keep it real, shall we?)

* Let your Higher Power know that whatever happens is all their fault.

* Seize the day.  You’re doing this to yourself because you want something, right? You want the world to know you’ve written a book? Concentrate on that.

* Laugh at yourself. Not in a derisive way, but in an Isn’t This a Grand Adventure way.  Life is whacky.  Embrace the whack.

* Read articles about drooling goobers like myself who have overcome and know that there’s no way you’re more messed up than the rest of us.  We are strong. We are powerful. We are the nerds!  Get snooty about being an introvert.

As you might have guessed, I was inspired to write this because I have a speaking engagement looming on the near horizon.  The creeping dread has started to poke at the corners of my mind, but now I am able to counteract it with the undeniable miracle of my survival, and dare I say, growth, through many of these Horrors.  Here’s hoping we can all face our challenges, if not exactly with confidence, than at least with humor and zest for this adventure called life.

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